Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Category: World Dreams (page 1 of 2)

Dreaming the Change We Wish To See In the World

When I work with dreams, I’m always asking myself what kind of meaning and value this work might have for the larger world. Mahatma Gandhi said that we should “be the change we wish to see in the world”—and I believe our dreaming lives can be as important as our waking lives as we try to manifest meaningful change.

There is so much suffering everywhere—all around us and within us—and  most of us share a deep longing to make a difference, to serve and to help, to contribute to positive change and healing. How do dreams make a difference? It’s clear that our dreams can be a tremendous resource for creative ideas, and an inspiration to collective action. But it’s not only the inspiring, constructive, encouraging dreams that have something to offer. Our mundane, difficult, uncomfortable and even awful dreams may be our best hope as we grow into new possibilities for the future of our world. If we want to “be the change,” we have to bring our entire “being” and contribute through our difficulties as well as our successes; if we want to “dream the change” then we need to share our difficult dreams, and learn from them together.

Perhaps the biggest lesson that we have to learn is that we are not alone. We share this beautiful planet, and we share a magnificent world of dreaming as well. We also share suffering. When I am in physical or emotional pain, millions of other beings are familiar with that pain, and many of them are experiencing those same feelings along with me right now. When I react in anger, or withdraw, or become overwhelmed—millions are with me. Even (or especially) when I’m lonely, I am not alone—countless others are lonely, too. When I wrestle with myself in my very personal dreams, I’m struggling with experiences that are universal: these dreams have been dreamed before, and they will be dreamed long after I am gone. So, when my dreams seem uninspiring, I can still open my heart and mind, expand my point-of-view, adapt and reflect and grow… and perhaps this opening, expansive response can grow in the world. My dreams invite me to include everything, include others, because my solitary idea of myself is too small for the dreaming we need.

When my dreams are unpleasant or just “ordinary,” my tendency is to dismiss them and move on to more substantial, more appealing dream experiences. But if I want to grow, and if I want the world to change in positive ways, I can’t avoid the reality of disruption, distraction, and difficulty. While big challenges may seem more inspiring, it’s the little day-to-day problems that add up to the most significant world crises. If I can’t manage my temper with rude drivers in traffic, I can’t expect to transform the worldwide hatred and vengefulness that can lead to war and genocide. If I can’t tolerate the minimal deprivation or discomfort of a power outage or a neighbor’s barking dog, then I can’t expect entire populations to welcome refugees or forgive painful historical wrongs. If I am greedy for more than my share of local resources like water and shelter, then I can’t help persuade wealthy nations to give up their privileges to prevent drought, starvation and despair on other continents. My “ordinary” dreams often confront me with the ways that I cling to my own agenda and refuse to open myself to new experiences. But these dreams give me opportunities to notice the problems that result from this self-preoccupied behavior, and to practice exactly the kinds of responses that could lead to real change in the world.

As I reflect on these difficult dreams (the ones that tell me disagreeable truths about myself), I discover what works and what doesn’t work in my conduct toward others. I begin to catch myself perpetuating the problems of this world, and eventually I begin to take responsibiltiy for behaving differently. These dream experiences give me the chance to change myself. And when we share such dreams—without paralyzing shame, but with authentic remorse and the desire to see clearly, grow wiser, and be kinder—we can expand the process of real change exponentially.

No Nourishment for the Long Drive: Tonight, I’m leaving for the long drive “home.” I’m looking forward to the solitary drive, but I need to get a meal first, to fortify me for the journey. I go into a busy restaurant and sit at a central table with several people. I order my meal, and it arrives: an unappetizing plate full of pale orange tomato sauce with large meatball-like lumps under the sauce so I can’t really tell what they are. But it’s okay; it’s what I ordered. Briefly, I leave the table to get something (silverware? salt?) and when I return, my plate is gone. One of the women at the table has gone, too, and someone tells me that she sent back my dinner and ordered something “better” for me—something similar to her own, more special, meal. She’s a regular here and knows the menu, so she wanted to be sure I got a memorable meal. I’m annoyed that she took this liberty and now I have to wait a very long time for the new order to come.

I need to get on the road so that I won’t have to drive all night. I wait and wait, getting grumpier and grumpier. I consider just storming out and skipping dinner, but I’m really hungry and afraid I won’t handle the drive well if I haven’t eaten. Finally, the food arrives and it’s just a tiny plate with a little serving of something that looks oddly beautiful, but not satisfying. After I’ve apparently eaten it, I’m still hungry. There are some condiments and extras on a side table so diners can help themselves—at first, these look appealing and I think I can serve myself a plateful and fill up on that. But when I try to fill a plate, I find there’s not much here after all—just some overcooked vegetables in an oily sauce. I eat a few bites, but I’m still hungry and now I really need to leave on my long drive without any real sustenance.

I complain to another woman who apparently works here, grousing that the meal I got was probably more expensive than the meal I originally ordered, and I don’t feel like paying for food I didn’t order. The woman is very nice and immediately says that she (or the restaurant) will pay the difference, so I only need to pay for the meal I ordered. I’m taken aback, maybe embarrassed by her generosity, realizing how petty I was being… but I refuse her offer saying I don’t even know how much my original meal would have cost. Then I’m at the counter, to pay. An older woman rings up my meal at the register and hands me the check—it’s way too much! I notice that one of the dishes listed is actually the meal eaten by the woman who ordered my meal. Now I’m really indignant and I say that I won’t pay for her meal, especially since she inconvenienced me so much. The restaurant women recognize that I shouldn’t pay, and start to redo the math, removing the extra meal from the check. Again, I feel a little ashamed of my own crankiness. I just want to get on the road, in my quiet car, for the long drive home.

I woke from this dream feeling disappointed, isolated, and incomplete. My fantasy of a peaceful, reflective “drive home” had been spoiled by the interference of others, and by my inability to find the nourishment I needed to enjoy the experience of my private journey.

Yet I recognized that this kind of feeling is all-too-common in the small world of middle class American white people. The dream-ego imagines that her spiritual journey is a solitary one, and that her goal is to get on the road, to retreat into the quiet of her own private car. She thinks she needs to get where she’s going, so she doesn’t notice where she actually is. She knows she’s hungry, but doesn’t understand what kind of hunger needs to be satisfied before she can “get on the road.” The food she ordered (and doesn’t get to eat) looks pretty unappetizing—yet she resents being forced to eat something unfamiliar, chosen by someone else. When she tries to “serve herself” some “extras,” she feels even more unsatisfied. The shared table in the midst of the busy world of this restaurant offers opportunities that she rejects. Nothing pleases her, and she doesn’t want to pay for anyone but herself. When she’s ready to drive home at last, she is not really equipped for the journey ahead, and has left something essential behind.

It’s painful to see my own narcissism reflected here. But it’s a narcissism that would be recognizable anywhere—just about everybody wants to have their own immediate desires satisfied, wants control of their individual life journey. The first thing I need to understand as I approach this dream is that the important journey “home” has already begun when I enter that busy restaurant. I’m so busy trying to get “on the road” that I don’t notice I’m on the road right now. Our day-to-day search for personal nourishment and satisfaction, at a shared table in the midst of the world’s unpredictability and bustling activity, is just as important as the intentional spiritual path. I’m on the path already, along with everyone else in that restaurant. The dream seems to stall as I become more and more preoccupied with trivial matters. But, while my attention is on my own displeasure, while I’m feeling wronged and dissatisfied, I’m missing the gifts and opportunities that are coming my way.

If I order what I think I want and need, I get a bland, barely adequate meal. But a stranger at the table offers me an alternative: something surprising, something special—a smaller serving, but one that’s created with care. It doesn’t satisfy me because I barely notice that I’m eating it. I want more. But, really, no matter what I serve myself, it will never be enough. When I complain, I’m met with kindness. Yes, life is hard and we’re often hungry for more than we’ve been given, but we only have to pay for what we’ve ordered ourselves. This isn’t a dream about real starvation, real deprivation and suffering, it’s about the suffering and hunger we cause ourselves because we’ve refused to be nourished by the abundance that’s available.

When I share this dream with others, they commiserate with me, because it’s a pretty dreary story and it’s all I’ve got to share today. Yes, sometimes our dreams aren’t much fun—we all agree. But as the dreamwork unfolds, we pay attention to the possibilities that gleam softly in the dark corners of that dream restaurant. We recognize the dream-ego’s goals as our own, and we feel some compassion for her—but we also recognize that she isn’t going to be satisfied by the kind of food she’s been looking for, and she isn’t going to change unless she wakes up.

I know how I want to respond to this dream when I wake up. I want to go back and meet the other people who are sitting at the table with me. I want to thank the woman who ordered me a different meal, and the woman who offered to pay the difference, and the servers and cashier and cooks. I want to appreciate every bite of what I get to eat, and leave the extras for somebody else. I want to pay for my own meal, and more. Maybe, when I’m ready to get on the road again, I want to offer someone a ride—we could share the driving, so it wouldn’t be so hard to drive all night. If I dream this bigger dream, it won’t change the world tomorrow—but it will change me. And if I can change, we all can change, because there’s no such thing as a solitary spiritual journey. If we’re going to “dream the change,” we’re going to dream it together.

The Unknown Someone: Anonymous Dream Figures

Have you noticed that there are characters in your dreams who are a part of the story, but remain unidentifiable? Perhaps in a dream, someone tells me the truth… someone is angry at me… someone is sitting alone in the corner…someone keeps interrupting. Is it a man or a woman, old or young? Is it even a human being? I’m really not sure. I’d like to get to know this unknown someone—to make a connection, to recognize who is there, hovering in the background, exerting an influence on the dream scene. These dream figures are often overlooked when we share dreams or write them down: we assume they are unimportant, because we can’t describe them adequately.

Such incidental, indeterminate characters keep showing up in my dreams. In “Pity the Poor Ego,” for example, there’s a room full of hot coals that is too hot to endure, yet I sense an unknown someone in there, just out of sight. The only thing I know about this person is that they are where no one can be, so I imagine that they must be wearing protective clothing, though I don’t actually see them. When I wrote the dream down, I almost didn’t mention this person, because their presence seemed incidental. But, as I explored further, the unknown someone began to seem more and more significant. I looked for similar characters in other dreams, and found them, in abundance. They always seemed to have something to do with the relationship between self and other, between “me” and “not-me.” Often, these characters were doing something that “I” (the dream-ego) couldn’t do (like standing on hot coals), or saying something that I couldn’t say, or knowing something that I didn’t know. They “just happened to be there”—but at a key moment, presenting an alternative understanding of the dream reality.

Perhaps these dream figures are unidentified because they represent, or embody, more than the dreamer can imagine. They are “beyond me.” Like images of the divine, they are beyond words, beyond our limiting ideas of what is possible or reasonable, or what is even conceivable.

Many spiritual traditions avoid naming God, or creating images of God that can only diminish that which is inexpressible. Yet, in most traditions, God is among us all the time, seeming so ordinary, so inconspicuous, that the immanent presence of the unknown someone can appear to be merely an inconsequential afterthought: the person standing beside me at the bus stop; the dog pausing to sniff my hand; the trees along my street that blossom extravagantly every Spring—all these divine beings can show me a different way to experience the reality I tend to take for granted.

Exploring the “unknown someone” can open up big, universal concerns—and can also be personally revealing. So, as I write about this, I think about my own identity in relation to these anonymous dream figures. Many of my recent posts have been quite personal. Sometimes, I feel that I’m walking the fine line between sharing and self-indulgence. Still, I believe it’s vitally important to share, because an isolated experience quickly becomes meaningless, while a shared experience resonates beyond any individual, potentially creating deeper connections and a larger purpose from challenges that would otherwise be monotonously difficult, empty, painful and exhausting. We are all manifestations of God for one another—we show each other that there is more to us than what we think we are. When I really see you, I see someone“not-me,” someone beyond myself, someone that expands my understanding of who I am. When you see me, you see another world, another way of being that is both familiar and unfamiliar.

Anonymous characters share our dreams, and also populate many areas of our waking lives. It’s important to acknowledge them and recognize that we are in relationship all the time, even if we are preoccupied with our own concerns.

Because my health challenges have forced me to spend more time than I’d like attending to my own immediate needs and coping with my own practical problems, I find my work with others (in spiritual direction and dreamwork facilitation) to be refreshing, and even more meaningful than it would have been if I were healthy. What a joy to concentrate on someone else’s concerns and spiritual journey for a change! I also find it refreshing to engage with “strangers” who I encounter in the course of my day, or who have become friends through social media, for many of the same reasons. When I write, I hope to open up my own concerns and journey to others, as others have opened their lives to me. We all play essential roles in one another’s lives: we learn from each other, receive support and encouragement from one another, and have the opportunity to be supportive and encouraging ourselves.

In dreams, all of the dream figures (human or animal) might be considered to be aspects of the dreamer’s own personal psyche. But, more significantly I think, all of our dreams touch upon levels of experience that we share, and all of our dream figures can legitimately be seen as other people, other beings, other possibilities—manifestations of something or someone beyond ourselves. So, when I’m sharing a dream, I’m revealing things about myself, but also communicating about a mystery that includes you, and invites you to enter the dream world with me. There, in the dream world, we meet friends and we meet strangers. The dream characters that are least familiar to us—those unknown someones—may have the most to offer. And sharing the dream, like sharing our waking-life experiences, gives us the opportunity to acknowledge and learn from perspectives that differ from our own. Continue reading

The Art of the Gesture: Dream Guidance in Gentleness, Genuineness and Generosity

What do I have to give? How can I create and offer a meaningful response to all that this life has given me? How do I do the work that is mine to do, convey the depth of my caring, and contribute actively to the well-being of this world, my own community, and my loved ones?

These questions become more urgent as I get older. Urgent, because I no longer assume that I will somehow begin to “give back” at some indeterminate time in the future… I know from experience that loved ones may die before I have given as much as I wanted to give; that the world around me and my own life keep rapidly changing all the time, and opportunities to make a difference might not be available when I think I’m ready. I know how easy it is to put off doing and being what I would like to do and be, and I know that I’m often too tired, or too busy, or too distracted to notice that the things I care about most are getting left out. I know that the years go by, and there’s so much I want to offer in gratitude and love… But, maybe this evening my back hurts, and I’ve already had several appointments, worked hard, run lots of errands, and I just feel like watching television with Holly or playing spider solitaire on my cell phone.

Because I have a degenerative disease that adds to my exhaustion and will probably shorten my life, I’m both more urgently aware of the need to give what I have to give now, and more easily spellbound by the need to rest, recover, and cope with immediate concerns rather than extending myself to make a creative effort. So, how to reconcile this paradox? I know I’m not alone in the dilemma. Most of my clients and friends, especially those who are over fifty, are wrestling with similar challenges in their own ways.

An example that will be familiar to many is my desire to get some writing done (articles, blog posts, a book) along with an equally compelling desire to do something—anything!—else. I’ve written and published all my life (usually wrestling with the process the whole way), and now that my health is problematic, writing is one of the primary ways that I can engage with others and make a contribution to the world. So, I really do want to do this work. But, when the time comes to do it, I’d almost always rather not. I’m easily drained, and concentration is difficult; there’s usually a good reason to give myself a break.

After years of experimentation, I’ve learned not to force myself into long writing sessions with high expectations, but also not to indulge in excuses that would allow me to avoid the issue entirely. Instead, I make a gesture toward writing every day: I write at least a sentence or a paragraph, or whatever I can do in twenty minutes, just to remind myself that this is important to me, that I care about doing it, and that it’s easier than I think. Of course, once I get started, I often keep going and work for hours, and whatever I have to offer in a particular piece of writing begins to take shape based on something truly heartfelt, rather than based on something that I think I “should” express.

Dreams have helped me develop this practice. In dreams, the possibilities aren’t limited by our expectations or excuses. Dreams invite the art of the gesture. Often, a dream situation will give me a new insight or direction, but I don’t know how to follow it up with concrete action in the waking world. Yes, that crazy dream was really important, but how the heck am I supposed to apply it to my waking life? The dream has given me a gift, but what do I do with it? I’ve found that any simple gesture (even just a pause for intentional thought or prayer) in response to the dream’s offering can be tremendously meaningful, because the dream points toward the vital essence of my experience, which is ready to be conveyed at this particular moment. Almost any expression of that dream-essence will resonate outward as a meaningful gesture, and will be in keeping with my own capacity to give and others’ availability to receive. It doesn’t have to look like a purposeful or important demonstration of anything.

Making a gesture in the direction of the dream, or in the direction of my own deepest intention, doesn’t require me to plunge right into a big enterprise when I’m not sure what to do or whether I have the energy to do it. When I make a gesture, I stand where I am (in my uncertainty) and tentatively reach out, allowing myself to experience just a little bit of my gratitude, longing, gifts and hopes, as well as my authentic desire to connect with others.

This kind of gesture engages the intrinsic human capacity for gentleness, genuineness and generosity. Like most dreamworkers and dreamers, I have a penchant for wordplay: the root “gen-” that these words share means that they are all connected in some way with creativity.

Gentleness is probably pretty self-explanatory: Whatever it is that I want to bring into the world and give to others cannot be forced—neither forced out of me, nor forced onto them. Genuineness is also fairly obvious: Giving cannot be contrived—ulterior motives just get in the way. Generosity may seem redundant—if I’m giving then I’m being generous, right? Well, not really, no. So often we give because we need something. Maybe we need others’ gratitude or recognition, or maybe we just need to feel that we have accomplished something or contributed something. These needs are completely natural, and not “wrong” in themselves, but any need comes from a sense of lack, a sense of deficiency, whereas the true joy of generosity is that it comes from abundance. We are all so gifted, so blessed—with our own unique creative potential, our love and caring and gratitude toward others—that giving can just spill over. As Rilke wrote: “May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, as it is with children…” And this doesn’t mean I have to move mountains to make way—all it takes is a gesture, a small act of gentleness, genuineness and generosity, to release the flow.

The best metaphor for the profound gifts we have to offer the world might be the tangible gifts—like birthday presents—we might give to our loved ones. Though I often want to give something special to those I love, the usual forms of giving don’t seem to fit. The expectation of a gift exchange around holidays has become so commercialized, and most everyone I know has enough “stuff” already—to give a present can seem to create an obligation for reciprocation. Also, trying to figure out what someone else might want can cause me agonies of indecision, and can seem wasteful and disappointing when I suspect I’ve gotten the wrong thing. On the other hand, an authentic gesture of love and acknowledgement can be wonderful.

I always felt a genuine desire to give my mother presents, yet I had a difficult time coming up with an uncontrived offering for each special occasion (Christmas, birthday, Mother’s Day). So on holidays, I just made a gesture by sending a card, and the the rest of the year I made a deeper gesture by holding her dear, complicated, unique self in my heart, waiting for the right gift to come along. Out of the abundance of my own pleasure in the process, I recognized when something would truly delight her—and then sent it as a surprise, for no particular occasion. This became a gesture of spontaneous appreciation and affection between us.

I’ve wanted to make a similar kind of gesture toward my sisters, Jill and Didi, too—especially since our parents both died in 2015. I hold my sisters in my heart all the time, and often feel a longing to give them something meaningful that would make their lives easier and bring them joy. So far,  I haven’t found literal gifts for them like those I gave my mother. But a recent dream reminded me of the feelings of gentleness, genuineness, and generosity that flow through me when I think of them:

Gifts for the Family: I’m traveling with a group (walking the Camino?) and we stop for supplies at a huge supermarket. I must find everything I’ll need for the remainder of the journey, and it’s very stressful and rushed. Mostly I’m looking for groceries I can carry and prepare easily, but I also pass through a bookshop within the larger store. Can I find a lightweight book? There are too many options, and I’m feeling frustrated when I notice a display of beautifully-bound blank journals. Immediately, I think of my family—these would be perfect gifts for my parents and sisters. I know that Mom and Dad are dead, but it doesn’t matter, I can still give them something precious and personal. And I’ll find exactly the right journal to suit Jill, exactly the right one for Didi. My sense is that these blank books will represent all the love I feel for each of my family members. The books I choose for them will recognize the individuality and “wide open” potential of each of their lives. I’m not able to complete my choices yet, but I know that I’ll come back here after I’ve finished the rest of my shopping. The shopping task is no longer overwhelming. Now that I’m thinking about the gifts for my loved ones rather than concerned with my own urgency, finding what I need for the journey comes naturally. Choosing the journals will be effortless, too. I am happy and at peace.

Yes, this is a dream about “gifts for my family,” but it’s also about any form of giving, any original, essential gifts that a person might offer in gratitude and blessing to others. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of a lifetime, we struggle to meet our own immediate needs, carried away by the tasks at hand… and then, an opening appears, a way of making a meaningful gesture that guides us toward the true tasks of our lives, the work/play of giving and loving. Whether that work/play takes the form of art or music or writing, building, cleaning, planning, social activism, counseling, healing, teaching, gardening, discovering, collaborating… or just being fully present (pun intended!) to whatever task we have at hand—we all have something to give (gently, genuinely, generously) that requires “no forcing and no holding back.” Continue reading

Dreamers In Good Company: The Social Dynamics of Dreamwork

Dreamwork is the opposite of naval-gazing. In my experience, people who take an interest in their dreams make good company, since they tend to become more self-aware, creative, curious, and caring. They also tend to develop better listening skills and social boundaries as well as more openness to diversity, concern for others, and willingness to be vulnerable and authentic in relationships. I might add an array of other healthy qualities I’ve observed in the community of dreamers: sense of humor, patience, kindness, intelligence, playfulness, maturity, integrity, generosity, flexibility… The list goes on.

Of course, dreamwork doesn’t automatically make us better people—but there’s no doubt that dreams can be significant contributing factors in our personal and social development. There are good, solid reasons why exploring our dreams, especially with others, really can make a difference in our lives and communities.

Before I give some of those reasons, I’d like to plunge into a real-life example of dreamwork in action. Not long ago, I attended the annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. I’ve been to four of these conferences so far, and have always found them to be stimulating gatherings where dreamers from all over the world and from diverse disciplines come together to share knowledge, insights, and inspiration.

This year, however, my own participation was iffy until the last minute. Just a few days before the conference, I had an echocardiogram which showed significant heart problems. I didn’t yet know exactly what this meant, but I was already having some disturbing symptoms, and understood that I was at risk for a heart attack, and might already be in the early stages of heart failure. My life expectancy and future options had abruptly changed. Was it safe to go to the conference at all? Would I be able to travel, participate fully, lead a daily dream group, interact with my colleagues and friends in such an intense social and professional environment?

Yes. Although I was in the midst of an emotional whirlwind, feeling just about as vulnerable as I could bear to be, I went to the conference and immersed myself in this vibrant community of dreamers for five days. I had a dear dreamworker friend for a traveling companion, and the support of my beloved partner via telephone, but I was also sustained by a teeming crowd of good-hearted strangers, acquaintances, and new friends (some only previously met on-line) who surrounded me with all of the qualities I described above. The majority of these good people didn’t know what was going on with me at all, and yet their presence grounded me, giving me a sense of safety and belonging, in spite of the disorientatation caused by my new health situation and cardiac symptoms.

Because of my personal vulnerability, I was especially sensitive to the social dynamics and emotional energy of those around me. The conference schedule is always packed, and between sleep deprivation and over-stimulation, most people get somewhat stressed. Taking almost a week away from home, traveling (in some cases, from very far away), and trying to pack a year’s worth of conversations into a few days… Well, I could see that I wasn’t the only person feeling vulnerable, tired, and at least a bit overwhelmed. This (like many other conferences) could easily have been an environment where gossip, exaggerated attention-seeking, belligerence, excess alcohol consumption, and generally unhealthy behavior would thrive.

Yet, incredibly, I observed gentleness and generosity on all sides, wise self-care and compassionate attention to the needs of others, respectful interactions between those who held differing points-of-view, and an atmosphere of warm, playful, appropriate willingness to share. Even awkward interactions seemed to be handled with grace and humor. Even casual conversations seemed trust-based and genuine.

In this context, I could make room for my own fears, needs, and confusion honestly without burdening those around me. My moods were constantly changing—one moment immersed in the enjoyment of the conference activities, the next moment straining at the limits of my physical and emotional resilience—but the container was a good one. As opportunities arose to talk with others about what I was experiencing, both the sharing and the responses seemed natural and mutually healing.

When I returned home, I felt more ready to face my cardiology appointment and treadmill stress test. Certainly, the company of dreamers (at the conference, and via the internet afterward) is helping me to absorb what I’m learning about my health as I adjust to my diagnosis (cardiomyopathy progressing toward heart failure) and prognosis (still uncertain). Does the fact that all these people consider dreams valuable make a difference in the way they relate to one another and to me? Does their dream interest at least partially account for their social skills and personal qualities? Since the conference, I’ve been holding this question as I lead my three dream groups and meet with individual clients for spiritual direction and dreamwork. The impression keeps being reinforced: When people explore dreams, it seems to bring out the best in them. Why is this? Continue reading

A Dream of Surrender and Hope: DreamTime Article

Click on the photo to read the article, and enter the woods…

For the Spring 2017 issue of DreamTime Magazine (a wonderful publication of the International Association for the Study of Dreams), I wrote a short article that really expresses the depths of my heart in these troubled times. My own dreams often invite surrender and offer hope—and I believe that such dreams can change our lives and our world in essential ways.

Please take a few minutes to read the article (by clicking on the photo)… And let’s talk about dreaming our way forward. How do your  dreams guide you? How might you choose to surrender old ways to follow a different path? And where do you find courage and hope?

Dreaming Up “The Bad Guys”

On my walk this morning, I saw a little boy dressed as a dragon, following his mother up a steep hill, roaring. He was tiny (barely four years old, probably) but formidable, in his fierce, floppy dragon-head hat, with his spiked tail swinging from side to side when he stomped his feet. Rows of green fins or scales lined his striped leggings and sleeves, and ran down his back. His sister (just a bit older) waited with their father at the top of the hill.

The little girl shouted, “Mom, are you the good guy?” Her mom, trudging up the hill, replied, “Yes. I’m the good guy.” The girl shouted, “You’re the good guy, and he’s the bad guy!” Mom said, tentatively, “Yes…”

The girl hollered at her brother, who had stopped walking to listen to the exchange: “You’re the bad guy! We’re the good guys! You’re the bad guy!” He stood with his mouth open—uncertain. Perhaps at first he’d intended to roar and be the bad guy, but his sister’s tone became increasingly taunting, and now it looked like he might decide to cry instead.

His mom couldn’t see his face, but his dad saw it and interceded, calling to him—“You’re not a bad guy.” And with that affirmation, the dragon burst out, in a teary wail of self-defense: “No! I’m not a bad guy! No, I’m not! I’m not a bad guy! I’M NOT A BAD GUY!”

Nobody really wants to be the bad guy. Yes, it feels powerful to make a lot of noise and to be a dragon… But, ultimately, the good guys are “us” and the bad guys are “them”—and being excluded from “us” just doesn’t feel right. Of course, this applies to the adult world as well as to the world of dragons and their older sisters.

In our present adult world, we’ve got a lot of noisy, dangerous “bad guys” in positions of authority, and many of us are running scared or trying to defend ourselves by defining ourselves as “us.” When we shout at the dragons and try to make them go away so that we can be a happy family of “good guys” without them… Well, good luck with that. I know that Donald Trump has virtually nothing in common with the adorable little boy in the dragon suit, yet I can’t help thinking maybe that’s how he started out. If bad guys exist, he’s certainly a bad guy. But how helpful is the whole game of bad guys and good guys anyway?

In dreams, the bad guys can seem truly awful. There’s someone dangerous, something horrible, some monstrous creature that does unbearable things. In nightmares, the damage done by these bad guys feels terribly real. Even in waking life, we can get caught up in a movie scenario where everything is reduced to the worst possible bad people against the best, most peaceful, most reasonable, good people… It seems like this is the way things actually are. But when the movie ends, we find that the world is much more complex and subtle and paradoxical than it seemed. The world is not a movie. Dreams are not movies, either. Unlike the popular clichés in those blockbuster films, dreams potentially express the richness of real life. While nightmares may play out the bad guy/good guy dichotomy, they also invite us to explore the possibilities surrounding such simplistic scenarios.

If I listen to the bad guy in the dream, I find that he doesn’t see himself as the bad guy—and maybe I learn something, even if I still don’t like him much. If I look at all of the other elements in the dream—the dragon costumes, the sets and supporting characters, the unexpected emotions and inconsistent details—then I find that I have to include everything in order to have any real understanding of what is actually going on.

There’s no “us” and “them” in a dream—it’s all me, or something larger than me: the dreamer and the dream-maker. The human family includes the good guys and the bad guys, the dragons, big sisters, parents, and observers. The dream is a big, intricate, inconsistent story. Every aspect of that story deserves my care and attention. Continue reading

Dream Thoughts

How does your mind work in a dream? It’s generally assumed that we think differently (or not at all) when we’re dreaming—but, if you’re anything like me, your dream-thoughts are actually not that different from your waking thoughts. It’s just that, in dreams, there are different things to think about, and different assumptions about what’s important. My recent dreams have included a lot of thinking. Maybe it’s because my “inner work” right now is not particularly sensational or dramatic—my concerns are subtle and reflective rather than active.

When we are learning to recognize our challenges and limitations, we may need to confront them  directly through powerfully instructive events in our dreaming and waking lives that either exaggerate or expose our habit patterns. As we get to know ourselves better, we may be able to see the problem played out over and over again, without being able to do much about it—but gradually, as the same scenes are repeatedly reenacted, we bring more awareness to our experiences. We begin to have time to pause and consider what is going on, how it works, and whether it’s consistent with our personal integrity and values. Eventually, we’ve had enough, and it becomes possible to interrupt the predictable process and make a change.

So, all my “thinking” dreams suggest that I’m working toward an understanding that will facilitate real transformation. I don’t need to participate in the drama, I need to comprehend it. Dreams where thinking predominates can be very creative—offering new perspectives on old problems, new insights into our own and others’ behavior. Often, they present questions without answers, and ask us to tolerate the discomfort of not knowing what to do.

Here’s a recent example from my own dreamworld:

Catching Shoplifters: I catch two blond girls (about ten and eight years old) shoplifting in a store owned by a friend of mine. The older one has tucked a pair of gloves up her sleeve. I confront them and take the gloves back. The girls are defiant at first, but then seem very frightened and I soften my tone, realizing that their mother has forced them to steal, and will hurt them if they go home empty-handed. I start to give the gloves back to them, and even consider giving them some plastic toy telescopes that are hanging on a rack nearby. But then I remember that it wouldn’t be fair to the business-owner to let this stealing continue. What if I go with the girls and confront their mother? But, no—if I confront her, then as soon as I leave she will punish them for getting caught. Whatever I do to her will be taken out on them. So, I can’t change this situation. For now, there are no good alternatives. I decide to step back and wait until I understand things better before I act. I’ll buy the girls some lunch, and let them go without my interference. But I am committed to finding a way to help these children and prevent further harm.

Helplessness is a big theme in our country right now. There’s injustice on a grand scale, theft, coercion, unkindness, and shameful conduct in our government that reflects similar patterns and problems we can also see in our immediate environment. We may be able to control our own behavior, but we are presented with situations outside of ourselves that we cannot control. What do we do about that? Well, impulsive reactions are not helpful. Suppressing our awareness and looking the other way is not helpful, either. We need to pause, care about what is happening, and give ourselves time to think. I’m trying to do this in my dreams and in my waking life.

Connecting with My First Lover: I’m angry about some careless and inconsiderate people. My first lover [a woman I haven’t seen in almost forty years] gently points out that I’m being critical before I know the whole story. Those people didn’t actually forget to pick up after themselves, and they didn’t mean to take something that wasn’t theirs. I think about this. I might have misread the situation. I apologize. She is very kind. We hug, and she smiles at me, saying, “We have a deep connection, don’t we?”

As a teenager and young adult, I began to question my own self-righteousness about politics and personal relationships. I was trying to stand up for something important, but I was beginning to recognize that life is complicated and paradoxical. I was beginning to imagine different points of view, check my assumptions, and think deeply about my concerns and the ramifications of my actions. Thirty or more years later, these questions and concerns have not been resolved, but I can connect with the earnest effort I made (and still make) to see beyond my own prejudices. I can trust kindness, gentle correction, and the courage to acknowledge mistakes. I can connect with the wisdom to wait and think about my own agenda. A relationship that introduced me to intimacy becomes a metaphor for learning to take a risk and open up to other perspectives. Continue reading

A Dream By Any Other Name

We’ve all used the word “dream” when we talk about a positive waking vision or hope for the future. While struggling with our current political nightmare, I find myself dreaming (imagining a better future) this way more often—such dreaming is a manifestation of longing, and longing has power. I dream of healing for the earth, and for all living things. I dream of kindness, fairness, simplicity, generosity, gratitude, integrity, beauty, cooperation, balance, peace. These are collective dreams, of course, shared by many millions of human beings all over the world—and perhaps by other creatures as well. Just as our sleep-dreams have archetypal images and themes, so do our waking dream-visions of what goodness could be. We have a common vocabulary for our longing, and even those who are greedy and hateful may dream of these positive possibilities (at least for themselves and their friends).

Yet, such waking dreams rarely have much substance. They are often abstractions rather than fully realized imaginings. I can “dream” of world peace—but what would that actually look like? Unlike most daydreams, our sleep-dreams have emotional richness, physical details, stories and surprises; although they may lack the coherence of conscious intention, they make a substantial impression because they are lived experiences, not just intangible ideas. We may try to imagine the future in a positive way, but our daydreams usually lack direct experiential weight. Our night-dreams have more vivid “reality.”

When Holly and I went to the humane society to adopt a kitten seven years ago, we dreamed (imagined, hoped) that our new family member would be sweet and special and a joy in our lives; we dreamed that we’d love him. But we could never have imagined Toby himself—the deaf cat whose voice sounded like a donkey braying; the little guy who bravely overcame his fear of balloons, liked to drink the bathwater, and would gaze soulfully into our eyes, begging for tiny bits of apple. Our Toby. Dreaming up a person (whether that person is human or cat) is not the same as experiencing that person. Although my daydream of who Toby might be could not measure up to Toby himself, my night-dreams of Toby, since his early death a few months ago, have been filled with the full intensity of his living presence.

What if our daydreams—our true longings—could have the same resonance, reality, narrative strength and specific impact as our night-dreams? Recently, for example, I had a vivid sleep-dream image: I’m seeing the coast of California from the air, and all the coastal cities are under water—I can feel the jolt of sad realization that climate change has already gone too far….

When I woke from this dream, the intensity of the feelings made my daydreamed longing for a healed relationship between humanity and the earth, between human cities and coastal ecosystems, much more real. I could smell the sea and hear the rustling of grasses in the salt marshes; I could feel the energy and vitality of city people and city life; I could sense the pulse of the planet, and the movement of meltwater. I could feel the real consequences of our human environmental carelessness, and I could truly imagine what it might mean if we moved toward a reciprocal, respectful relationship with the planet we inhabit.

When we have big dreams (longings)—like Martin Luther King Jr. did, or like our wisest, kindest, most courageous selves can—they are as real as our vibrant night-dreams. We need to imagine our longings as fully realized. This is not always possible, but it is something to move toward. Continue reading

Facing the Monster: Responding to the Nightmare of a Trump Presidency

monster-01Well, the nightmare has come out from under the bed and is now in plain sight, in our very own country, where we might have imagined we were safe. The monster is not Donald Trump, but the hate, fear and ugliness he embodies. And the nightmare can only be changed into a new dream for our future if we face that monster head on—resisting not only the monstrous message and agenda of this administration, but the echoes of that monster in ourselves.

There are many constructive ways of approaching our sleep nightmares, and similar approaches can apply to the nightmares that confront us when we are fully awake. One of the most helpful dreamwork techniques involves becoming lucid—which means becoming aware that you are dreaming in the midst of a dream—and then moving toward the thing that most scares you, encountering it directly instead of succumbing to blind helplessness.

I won’t go into methods for becoming lucid in a dream here, because I’m more interested right now in how we become lucid in the midst of our present waking nightmare. We become lucid by acknowledging that this nightmare is part of a big dream we’ve all dreamed up together. We face the monster and move towards it by recognizing the ways our own hate and fear can shape our perceptions and actions. By consciously and collectively turning that energy in a new direction, we will be able to resist its monstrous manifestations in the world around us. Continue reading

Dreaming and Daring: Meeting the Unknown Every Night

ocean with rocks 02

I am suggesting that the crazy nature of dreams is precisely what makes them useful and meaningful. Each night when we sleep, dreams combine fragments of our personal lives (memories, recent incidents, perceptions, sensations) with something more essential and shared (archetypal imagery, body and earth wisdom, a vital sense of meaning and connection). All of this same stuff is available to us when we are awake, but in our dreams it is organized in crazy ways, with a pattern-producing randomness similar to that which creates fractals in nature. It is my belief that the all-inclusive chaotic patterning behind dream craziness is actually closer to “the way things really are” than the self-reinforcing information structures that make up our waking conception of reality.
-Kirsten Backstrom, “Dreaming and Daring”

At the recent 2015 Psiber-Dreaming Conference (an exciting international on-line event that explores the outer reaches of dreamwork and dream studies), I offered a presentation called  “Dreaming and Daring: Meeting the Unknown Every Night.” 

This paper is a playful adventure into the Open Mind Theory of Dreams…

Click on the picture to plunge in and read on…

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